Where you are matters as much as who you are. It’s no good thinking through your identity and vocation if you cannot make it work at home. What works in New York City won’t work in Saskatoon. Your time and place matter, and “the incarnation is the intersection of the timeless with time.”
Jesus’ disciples are like water; meaning we can take the shape of everything without losing the essence of who we are. That’s good news. It means that we can all find ways to make ministry work at home, even if “home” is a foreign country, the wrong side of the tracks, or someplace other than our secret fantasy congregation on the beach. A pig farmer, submitted to God and cooperating with the Spirit, can be incarnated in downtown Chicago, just as a railroad tycoon can find some way to heal the world on an island in the Caribbean. The only requirement is that they pay attention to where God has placed them and not fight against it.
To start with, you’re going to have to make some things up. By this, I mean you and your people cannot simply take someone else’s program, curriculum, emphasis, or slogan. Nope. Our task involves doing the hard work of parsing the gospel for our context.
But, you might ask, what about all the amazing stuff available for dirt-cheap from our denominational publisher? Or the fabulous free stuff from the latest mega-sexy-Jesus-fad conference? Isn’t that so much better than anything we could do ourselves?
Maybe that’s one way to look at it.
Another way to look at it involves thinking about whether it’s better to create new life with your spouse or buy a baby off the Internet. Sure, making your own baby takes longer and there are some risks. Your offspring, after all, might have the same lisp you do or the same waddle…but what kind of creepy pervert would buy a baby?
But ministry flows out of you, not them. Some of you might be disagree. You might consider using someone else’s material akin to adoption. But adoption is usually more costly than natural childbirth, not less. And even in those cases where adoption is the only option for people to begin a family, they explore the process having exhausted all other avenues. Furthermore, adoption is a relationship. It’s one thing to foster Christ-like relationships—reaching out to those less fortunate with love—but quite another thing to adopt a program.
Too many churches don’t even seem willing to try to conceive. We’ve forgotten that making the baby is part of the fun, blithely resolving that it’s too hard to make our own and we should buy someone else’s instead. But if you just nab things others have created for people in their church, your ministry will never quite fit into your context. At best you’re the out-of-place adult wearing a concert T-shirt at the Miley Cyrus show; at worst, you’re guilty of buying babies.
Adoption is noble. Copying someone else’s ministry idea is just lazy.
God hasn’t called you to copy others. God has called you to minister to your people with the gifts he’s given you. Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t cheat. Bleed your own blood.
Franchise is another word for dis-incarnation.
In So Beautiful, Len Sweet lists three requirements for incarnational innovation. First, everyone needs a high contextual intelligence, meaning you’ve got to “get” your city, your town, or your neighborhood. Learn what makes the people tick, what they value, and what they fear. Second, everyone needs to understand that—even in the right location—the right idea requires the right timing. No one comes to a nativity in the summer. Finally, everyone needs to understand that—while structures matter—the specific form and shape of any endeavor comes from its essence. Consider that every coffee shop has comfortable chairs and side tables so you can happily drink coffee and talk with friends; or consider that every bookstore is well-lit and patrons are encouraged to leaf through books and happily experience the leisure of reading right there, right away. The way we do things must match up with the things themselves. There’s no point in hosting a cake walk during the season finale of The Biggest Loser.
One of the ways you can begin to determine the pulse of your community is to look for the dominant cultural symbols and figure out what’s going on behind them. Our town, for example, has a huge underground folk music audience. Music is a powerful symbol in its own right, but my co-pastor began to realize there was something deeper behind the music of southern Michiganders. He realized they were yearning for redemption. Jvo took things a step further and began playing in a folk trio that toured around the state. Whenever he played, people would come up to him (usually drunk or stoned) and talk about their own need for forgiveness, or restoration, or healing (either social or relational). Jvo was inundated with bad news—with un-gospel, so to speak—and began formulating a plan to tell good news instead. He started a folk festival called FolkGalore and invited a bunch of bands from around the state to come together under the banner of: Music. Story. Redemption. In so doing he was able to offer good news in a way that made sense to our community. Sometimes he was able to share the gospel implicitly through music, but many times he was able to share the gospel explicitly through words because of the connections he made through his music. If you were to analyze Jvo’s approach, you’d see that he first identified a powerful cultural symbol (folk music) and then the value behind it (redemption), before re-telling the story of our people using their own symbols and offering up Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of their search for redemption.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com